Behind Pulitzer Prize, The New York Times' Hidden Agenda

Last week, New York Times reporter David Barstow received a Pulitzer Prize for his April 20, 2008 front-page investigative story, “Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon’s Hidden Hand.” The article, which claimed that the Pentagon was engaged in propaganda by using retired military officers to promote Bush administration policies, has since been largely debunked by an independent, non-partisan investigation by the Department of Defense’s (DoD) Inspector General (IG).

The Barstow story was directed at the Pentagon’s program under which retired military officers were afforded access to senior leaders and briefings in which factual information about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was presented.

But the Times’ reported that far from being objective, the Retired Military Analysts (RMAs) were pawns in a Pentagon propaganda program: “Hidden behind the appearance of objectivity, though, is a Pentagon information apparatus that has used those analysts in a campaign to generate favorable news coverage of the administration’s wartime performance, an examination by The New York Times has found.”

As a result of the Times story and Congressional inquiries it stirred up, the DoD IG looked into the RMA program and reported formally (PDF) that no laws or regulations were broken.

The Pulitzer Prize Committee’s decision to award Mr. Barstow for his investigative work is perplexing. What they honored was a story written on a political agenda, not on facts. The story was another effort by the NYT to demonize the Bush Administration and its War on Terror policies. The Pulitzer Prize should not be a platform for pushing political agendas, and the committee owes the qualified journalists whose work they ignored an apology.

In January, the IG found that the Pentagon did not “violate the prohibition on publicity and propaganda,” and that the activities and briefings of RMAs “were conducted in accordance with DoD policies and regulations.”

After the release of the IG report, Mr. Barstow wrote another article. Mr. Barstow’s original front page indictment was more than 7,500 words; the second story, buried on page A-11, was a meager 690 words. This piece, “Inspector General Sees No Misdeeds in Pentagon’s Effort to Make Use of TV Analysts,” is hardly a confession of error or rushed judgment by Mr. Barstow or The New York Times. Instead, Mr. Barstow includes a lengthy Bush-bashing quote from Congressman Paul W. Hodes, Democrat of New Hampshire.

Meanwhile, Mr. Barstow conveniently leaves out the main statements by the independent, non-partisan investigation by the DoD IG, which came to a radically different conclusion. The final conclusion of the IG report states, “We found no indication that partisanship was operative during the interchanges with RMAs and found no evidence that the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs personnel sought to somehow avoid portraying DoD as a source for the information provided. Rather, the briefings were open and transparent.”

While Mr. Barstow selected specific information requested through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the IG’s investigation team conducted a comprehensive inquiry examining more than “12,000 pages of unclassified information, plus a limited number of classified documents” — documents Mr. Barstow would not have had access to. The IG’s team also gathered sworn testimony from more than 30 witnesses directly connected to the program.

There are a number of allegations in Mr. Barstow’s article that are addressed and refuted directly by the IG’s report. Here are just a few examples:

  • Mr. Barstow wrote that, “Most of the analysts have ties to military contractors vested in the very policies they are asked to assess on the air.” The IG report found no evidence that any of the analysts had gained information that would advantage companies to which they were tied and said that only about 20% of the analysts — not “most” of them — even had such ties;
  • He also wrote that the Pentagon regarded the military analysts as “force multipliers” or “surrogates” who could be counted on to deliver Bush administration “themes and messages.” The IG report said that “Calling the RMA’s ‘surrogates’ in this context was inaccurate;”
  • Mr. Barstow alleges the Pentagon used retired military analysts who “echoed administration talking points, sometimes even when they suspected the information was false or inflated.” The IG report said, “testimony indicated that briefers were often subjected to rigorous and critical questioning by the RMAs, who were not inclined to accept information without challenge.”

These analysts are career military officers who rose through the non-partisan ranks of the military through a combination of hard work and ability to lead. It is awfully presumptive to state that they would stake their reputations for politics. The Pentagon seeks to inform military analysts so they are better prepared to report on DoD policies whenever a reporter calls, whether they are from CNN, The New York Times, or FOX News.

The conclusions drawn in Mr. Barstow’s New York Times article aren’t surprising. The New York Times had an agenda from the beginning. They filed the FOIA request from the DoD in hopes they would make news, and they did. Instead of erupting into applause when the Pulitzer Committee’s results were announced, The New York Times should have issued an apology to the retired military officers.

More importantly, have the standards of the Pulitzer Prize committee dropped this low? Is this standard of journalism really worthy of any award?

[Editor’s note: Human Events Editor Jed Babbin was a member of the military analyst group. Mr. James Davis was the public affairs officers assigned to the RMA group while employed by the Defense Department from 2006 to 2008.]